Combating the history of discriminatory practices in the agricultural industry


the American Rescue Plan Act, a massive tax relief package sparked by COVID-19 and passed by Congress earlier this year, set aside up to $ 4 billion to wipe out some federal loans given to farmers belonging to groups that still have been subjected to discriminatory lending practices.

The program targets Black, Native American, Hispanic and Asian American farmers for help with debt relief from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But a lawsuit filed Thursday by a group of white farmers in Wisconsin, Ohio, South Dakota and Minnesota is asking a federal court to declare the program discriminatory and unconstitutional.

There is a long history of discrimination against women and people of color in agriculture – the effects of which continue to impact the industry today. In Minnesota, about 99% of farmers are white, a consistency that does not reflect the diversity of the state’s population.

The most recent agricultural census identified 39 black farmers in Minnesota – out of nearly 69,000 farms. A total of 1,267 farmers of color operate in the state and most operate small farms.

“We have a huge disparity. We have a long way to go, ”said Patrice Bailey, an assistant commissioner who leads the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Emerging Farmers Initiative.

“There is a lot of work to be done to help people see themselves in Minnesota agriculture.”

Bailey conducted statewide listening sessions in 2019 and identified a number of constant barriers preventing people from farming, including a lack of access to land and credit; discrimination; high health care costs and lack of training opportunities.

But Bailey is optimistic about how the industry is going.

“I see this as a watershed moment, especially what’s happening nationally in the Biden administration, with respect to the Black Farmers Justice Act and the US bailout,” he said.

Senator Tina Smith, D-Minn., Is a co-sponsor of the Justice for Black Farmers Act, first introduced in Congress last year. The bill would take steps to a long history of USDA discrimination against black farmers.

USDA loans are essential for many industry players, as farmers often need credit to plant crops – and USDA is a key loan source. Over the years, black, Hispanic, Native American and female farm operators have sued the agency over allegations of discrimination in federal farm loans.

The USDA has spent billions of dollars across the country to resolve these claims.

Meanwhile, discrimination has taken its toll on farmers of color in agriculture.

“Over the past 100 years, 90 percent of farmland owned by blacks has been lost,” Smith said. “We have a systemic problem here.”

New US bailout program – which the Midwest Farmer Group is pursuing – focuses its debt relief efforts on farmers in what the USDA calls “socially disadvantaged groups,” because of systemic racism and the discrimination they faced.

“It has the potential to even create a playing field that has been so stacked against black farmers and all farmers of color,” Smith said. “And I think it has the potential to be really powerful.”

Smith helped incorporate the debt relief provision into coronavirus relief legislation as a member of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee. The USDA has estimated that more than 13,000 loans nationwide could be written off by the program.

Land and credit key at entry

Access to farmland and credit are often the biggest obstacles for new farmers trying to enter the industry. Discrimination can make these barriers overwhelming for people of color trying to get into farming.

This discrimination has a long history, Bailey said – and dates back to the days after the Civil War when a promise of “40 acres and a mule” to former slaves who wanted to become farmers was never fulfilled.

Smith said it’s true that young white farmers trying to get into the business sometimes struggle to access land and credit.

“But the point is, these farmers have all kinds of access to opportunities that our black and brown and indigenous farmers are systematically excluded from, so what we’re trying to do is fix this system that is holding these farmers back,” he said. she declared. .

Patrice Bailey believes that communities of color, long excluded from agriculture, need a reestablished link with their food.

Bailey, who grew up in New York City, spoke of traveling to northwest Minnesota to see vast fields of bright yellow canola.

“A child who lives in Brooklyn Park or [the] Frogtown or Rondo [neighborhoods in St. Paul], wouldn’t even be familiar with how it looks or smells, then go to the grocery store and see a product, [like canola oil,] to cook your food, ”he says.

“We have to talk about agricultural terms not only in rich areas and rural areas, but we have to talk about agriculture in the metropolitan area as well.”

Bailey sees a growing interest in urban agriculture, but he also wants to see more interest in finding opportunities for people of color to get involved in all phases of the industry. He hopes to see new agricultural training programs in urban areas, and more federal and state help to overcome barriers to entry.

And the timing is crucial: With the average Minnesota farmer nearing retirement, a new generation will take over one of the state’s largest industries.

“There is going to be a big transition. And we have to make sure we have people ready to take the lead and move forward. And as our communities become more and more diverse, including in rural Minnesota, we can’t afford to exclude just one group of people, ”Smith said.

“We need to make sure that the next generation of farmers represents the people who live in Minnesota and that everyone who lives in Minnesota has the opportunity to get into farming and take it to where they go next.

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